Analysis |

Direct U.S.-Iran Nuclear Talks Could Leave a Few Winners, and Losers, in Its Wake

Senior Haaretz analyst Anshel Pfeffer says possible talks could be derailed by a long list of potential events, but the New York Times leak is extremely timely for the Obama administration.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

The one-on-one talks over Iran's nuclear program, apparently agreed upon between the United States and Iran, and leaked Saturday to the New York Times, are not meant to take place until after the results of next month's U.S. presidential elections are known.

The negotiations could be derailed by a long list of potential events and may never take place, but the leak is extremely timely for the Obama administration and a significant development in and of itself.

If indeed the report is accurate, despite the administration's denial (which came with the intriguing caveat that the Americans "have said from the outset that we would be prepared to meet bilaterally"), the winners and losers in the high-stakes nuclear showdown are already clear.

Winners

Barack Obama

The president began his first term promising to engage the Iranians diplomatically, and though the talks will only begin after the elections, at least he can point to some sort of progress.

The specific timing of the leak, on the eve of the third and final presidential debate which is to deal with foreign policy issues is rather suggestive (moderator Bob Schieffer has already announced that one of the issues he will be focusing on is to be "Red Lines – Israel and Iran"). Naturally, this is already being spun as an achievement for the administration – finally overcoming Iran's opposition to direct talks.

Ali Khamenei

Once again the Iranians have won a bit more time in which it can continue enriching uranium and reaching that bit closer to the point of nuclear "break-out." Less than a week after the European Union authorized new and harsher sanctions against Iran's tottering economy and a month after a similar decision by the Obama administration, the prospect of new negotiations will at the very least slow down the implementation of this latest round. Sanctions are always only as good as their enforcement and this latest development will not make any of the governments involved more eager to do so. For Iran's Supreme Leader, these are clear achievements for which he has not been made so far to make any concessions.

The Israeli security establishment

Nearly seven years after Ariel Sharon vanished from the public stage, a majority of the senior officers in Israel's military and intelligence hierarchy still adhere to the "Sharon Doctrine," which continuously emphasized that "Iran is the world's problem – not Israel's." As a result they have been less than enthusiastic with the current government's voluble emphasis of the issue and will see a direct American engagement with the issue as preferable. They would also argue that should the U.S. diplomatic initiative fail in the face of Iranian intransigence, it would then give either Israel or the Americans a better case for launching a military strike.

Ehud Barak

While acting as Netanyahu's partner on Iran throughout the government's term, sometimes arguing in private even more forcefully in favor of a strike, Barak has also been the main liaison on these matters to the administration, traveling monthly to Washington (filling in for Foreign Minister Lieberman who is less than welcome there) and in recent weeks, as Netanyahu continued his thinly veiled attacks on American policy, it was left to Barak to publicly acknowledged the value of its support. The need for Israel to be connected to the higher-profile American diplomatic engagement could bolster Barak's attraction to voters as the "responsible adult" they need in the next coalition.

Losers

Benjamin Netanyahu

Israel's ambassador to the U.S, Michael Oren is quoted in the New York Times saying that Israel was not informed of the agreement with Iran to hold talks and if he was out of loop, it would seem that the coordination between the two nations on the Iranian issue is not as close as it is usually described. This could give ammunitions to Netanyahu's detractors in Israel who accuse him of downgrading the strategic relationship with Washington. The prospect of direct negotiations also puts Netanyahu on the defensive as he has continuously preached for "red-lines," "crippling" sanctions and a much clearer message to Iran that it is risking military strikes. The prime minister's high-profile handling of the Iranian threat is to be a prominent feature of his election campaign and diplomatic developments, taking place contrary to his predictions could steal his thunder. Dismissing the talks carries the risk of deepening the rift between him and Obama, making a Democrat victory next month even more of a liability for Likud.

Mitt Romney

The possibility of direct talks with the Iranians puts the Republican candidate on the spot in advance of Monday's presidential debate. He will almost certainly be asked whether he would choose to pursue these negotiations were he to be elected. A negative answer would be unpopular as the majority of American voters are not interested in war with Iran, but approving of the talks would make it difficult for him to fault the Obama administration's handling of the Iranian nuclear issue as he has been doing for months now. He could of course, justifiably, ask why it took the administration nearly four years to reach this point but that would seem simply churlish.

Bashar Assad

The U.S. has made clear over the last year that it will not allow Iran to have a say in Syria's future and that it demands the removal of the Assad regime as part of any solution to the civil war in the country. There has been no indication that this is about to change and as the bloodshed in Syria steadily worsens, it hardly could. In Iran's leaders' agreement to sit down with the Americans and talk about the future of their nuclear ambitions, we could see the beginning of a realization in Tehran that they have to prepare for life after Assad. This of course doesn’t mean that Iran will stop trying to influence affairs in Syria or Lebanon, just that they are aware that the region's landscape is rapidly changing and Assad will have no role to play in it.

Catherine Ashton

The European Union foreign policy chief was widely seen as an ineffectual diplomatic lightweight, criticized by many of the foreign ministries of the EU members. The P5+1 talks, in which diplomats from the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council along with Germany tried to reach an agreement with Iran's representatives over uranium enrichment were seen as her shining moment. Baroness Ashton was recognized as the de-facto chief negotiator on behalf of the international community and she tirelessly worked to bring the sides together in three rounds of talks. Some of the most skeptical critics were won over by her relatively tough bargaining positions towards the Iranians. But the end result has been zero progress and the U.S.-Iran talks have now both deprived her of the limelight and pushed the Nobel Peace Prize laureates of the EU out of the picture.

Beneath a photo of his predecessor Ayatollah Khomeini, Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivering a speech in Tehran, Iran, Tuesday, July 24, 2012. Credit: AP

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